Nursing has always faced its fair share of challenges. But after two pandemic years with a growing nursing shortage, things have reached a level we haven’t seen during our careers. It was always the support of our co-workers that pulled us through the challenging times. Today, it’s becoming harder and harder to provide that support and be a shoulder to cry on. Nurses are simply burning out, in Newfoundland and Labrador, and across Canada.
If you speak to a nurse today, they will tell you they cannot keep up. They will tell you they take a change of clothes and an extra meal to work because they don’t know if their 12-hour shift will turn into a 16-, 20-, or 24-hour day. Patient care is compromised due to short-staffing and this weighs heavily on their physical and mental health, long after they leave the workplace. Nurses are tired, angry and frustrated. They have been crying out for help and feel like no one is listening.
Nurses want what we all want: control over their lives. It’s simple, really.
They want to stop missing special moments with family and friends. To know they can book a vacation or safely plan their wedding. And they want to know they provided the best care possible.
This crisis has been years in the making.
Even before the pandemic, burnout rates among nurses in Canada were extreme. More than 60 per cent experienced some symptoms of burnout, while almost 30 per cent were experiencing clinical burnout.
Since the pandemic, those numbers have increased to 94 per cent of nurses experiencing burnout, with almost half now classified as clinical, meaning they need mental health supports. The very people Newfoundlanders and Labradorians depend upon to care for them are no longer able to care for themselves.
In our province, there are already 600 vacant positions, and 900 registered nurses are set to retire in the next two years. One in two permanent RNs are considering resigning to take a casual position in a desperate attempt to find work-life balance.
What’s more unsettling than the statistics are the stories behind these numbers — the heartbreak and desperation. Nurses’ unions hear these stories every day. We recently heard from a nurse with 30 years’ experience who repeatedly told her employer she needed a break. She was extremely stressed, burnt out and feeling disconnected, but she was denied time off, due to short-staffing.
After three decades of nursing, she put in her notice and left, feeling like no one cared. Her vital knowledge and expertise were lost.
For months, hospitals have been forced to cut services or shut down entire departments because of shortages of nurses and doctors. Wait times for life-saving treatments and surgeries continue to climb. And our aging population continues to have less and less access to quality care. Concerted government action is urgently needed to turn the tide and stem the exodus of nurses from the system.
For starters, we need to restore hope in two ways:
First, by giving them a light at the end of the tunnel with firm timelines and real accountability for improving nurse-patient ratios. That means funding proven programs to retain and recruit more nurses, including returning nurses who have left the profession. And funding for more nursing seats, bridging programs and new mentorship initiatives. And support for transitioning internationally educated nurses.
Second, by providing immediate and ongoing support for nurses’ mental health programs.
People go into nursing because they want to help people and aren’t afraid of a tough job. The problem is it’s not a tough job anymore, it’s an impossible one. Canada’s nurses are some of the strongest, most resilient people we know. They have seen great hardship and suffering in their patients, so they do not ask for help lightly. And if we don’t take immediate action, we risk suffering a system-wide failure of our treasured universal public health care system.
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey has been listening to nurses. For years, Canada’s premiers have been asking the federal government to increase health transfers so they can make these critically needed investments into nursing. On July 11, federal, provincial, and territorial government leaders assembled at the Council of the Federation meeting to discuss health care.
Our message has never been clearer. Newfoundland and Labrador and Canada’s health-care system is on the brink of catastrophe. We must fix the dire shortage of nurses.
Yvette Coffey is president of the Registered Nurses’ Union Newfoundland & Labrador (RNUNL). Linda Silas is president of Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU). This opinion piece originally appeared in The Telegram, a daily newspaper in Newfoundland and Labrador. This version is reprinted with permission.